Ranking Bruins' priorities on busy offseason to-do list originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
The Boston Bruins are in the very early stages of a pivotal offseason for the franchise.
After a stunning first-round exit in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Bruins' roster could look a lot different next season given the high amount of players who are eligible for free agency, in addition to guys who could end up retiring. Replacing any of these players who depart won't be easy for the Bruins because they have so little salary cap space. Building through the draft is a challenge, too, given all of the first- and second-round picks Boston has traded away in recent years.
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Which offseason tasks should the B's prioritize over the next few months? Here's our ranking. (All salary information via CapFriendly)
1) Figure out the futures of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci
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Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci didn't sign their one-year contracts for the 2022-23 season until August of last year. The Bruins probably need an answer earlier in the offseason in 2023.
Both of these veteran centers are 37 years old. Bergeron just wrapped up his 19th season in Boston. Krejci has played 16. There's not much left for them to accomplish. Bergeron definitely will have his No. 37 retired and eventually be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Krejci deserves to have his No. 46 retired, too.
If both of them come back, center is not a major need for the 2023-24 campaign. The Bruins likely would go into the season with Bergeron, Krejci and Charlie Coyle as their top three centers, and then one of maybe Tomas Nosek, Trent Frederic or John Beecher as the fourth-line center.
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If Bergeron and/or Krejci retire, center immediately becomes a huge roster weakness. Pavel Zacha and Coyle played well as the top two centers in Games 3 and 4 against the Florida Panthers in the first round of the playoffs, but that was a pretty small sample size. Coyle wasn't a good fit as the No. 2 center in the 2021-22 season so Erik Haula filled that role. He's more suited as a third-line center. Zacha could be a No. 2 for a full season if he's playing with David Pastrnak. Neither player is a No. 1 center -- not even close.
The internal options to replace Bergeron and/or Krejci aren't great. The Bruins have a few prospects who could fill the fourth-line center spot next season, but none of them are capable or ready for a top-six role.
If Bergeron and Krejci both retire, the Bruins should probably explore a trade for a top-six center. Pierre-Luc Dubois of the Jets, Mark Scheifele of the Jets, Kevin Hayes of the Flyers and Elias Lindholm of the Flames are a few players to consider pursuing.
The problem with trading for one of these centers is the Bruins need more cap space to pull off that kind of deal, which leads us to...
2) Create salary cap space
The Bruins have less than $10 million in salary cap space with more than 10 players able to hit free agency this summer. Some of those players are pretty important, including Bergeron, Krejci, Tyler Bertuzzi, Dmitry Orlov and Jeremy Swayman. Bringing everyone back is impossible. "Roster changes are coming," general manager Don Sweeney said last week.
The best way to create cap space is making a trade.
Taylor Hall is still a very good player -- and he tied for the team lead in goals scored (five) during the 2023 playoffs -- but at 31 years old with a $6 million cap hit, moving him to address the team's issues at center wouldn't be a horrible idea. The problem with trading Hall is the Bruins are already so thin up front, especially if some of their UFAs -- such as Bergeron, Krejci, Bertuzzi, Nick Foligno, Garnet Hathaway, etc. -- depart in the offseason.
The Bruins have great depth on the blue line, so trading a defenseman for cap space makes the most sense. Matt Grzelcyk is underutilized in Boston, and with one more year remaining on his contract, now is a good time to trade him if the Bruins don't see him in their future plans. Derek Forbort has one more year left on his deal with a $3 million cap hit. He's someone the Bruins could consider moving. Mike Reilly has a $3 million cap hit and an expiring deal, but the Bruins weren't able to find any takers for him last year and buried his contract in Providence for almost the entire season. The B's might have to attach a prospect or draft pick to Reilly to entice a team to take him.
Trading one of the goalies is another potential path to more cap space. Linus Ullmark is coming off a Vezina Trophy-caliber season. He has two more years remaining on his contract with a $5 million cap hit. Is there a deal to be made with a goalie-needy team like the Edmonton Oilers? Jeremy Swayman's rookie contract will soon expire and he could make around $4 million per season with his next deal. The three-year, $12 million extension that Stars netminder Jake Oettinger signed last September would be a fair contract for Swayman. Should the Bruins use up between $9-10 million of cap space on their goalies? The answer is no, especially when you look at other areas of the roster that need upgrading.
The Bruins could trade Ullmark's $5 million cap hit and still have a solid goaltending tandem for the foreseeable future with Swayman and a veteran backup.
The salary cap is projected to rise by just $1 million to $83.5 million for the 2023-24 season. The Bruins also have $4.5 million of overages to tack on to their 2023-24 salary cap from Bergeron and Krejci's 2022-23 contracts. The Bruins went all in last season from a salary cap perspective. Therefore, they have very little flexibility this summer. Trading away contracts is the most effective method to create cap space.
3) Prioritize which UFAs should be re-signed
The list of Bruins players eligible for unrestricted free agency is a long one.
- Patrice Bergeron, C, age 37
- David Krejci, C, 37
- Nick Foligno, LW/RW, 35
- Garnet Hathaway, RW, 31
- Dmitry Orlov, D, 31
- Tomas Nosek, C, 30
- Tyler Bertuzzi, LW/RW, 28
- Connor Clifton, D, 28
Bergeron and Krejci are obviously the priority. They are still very good players and, as noted above, the internal options to replace them aren't very appealing.
After them, trade-deadline acquisition Tyler Bertuzzi is the best of the bunch. He was an awesome fit in Boston, especially on a line with Pastrnak. Not only is Bertuzzi a quality goal scorer, he's a gifted playmaker and his power forward-type of play style is exactly what the Bruins need. Signing him could be difficult, though. The free agent class is fairly weak overall and he's one of the top guys expected to be available. It wouldn't be shocking if Bertuzzi earned around $7 million per year in his next contract. That number would be pretty tough for the Bruins to fit into their cap structure without trading away a player or two.
Orlov also played well after arriving before the trade deadline. His upcoming contract is probably his last chance to get a long-term, lucrative payday. Giving a 31-year-old defenseman a four- or five-year deal when defensive depth is already a strength of the roster wouldn't be the smartest decision by the Bruins.
Nosek is a guy the Bruins should seriously try to re-sign. He was a key part of the team's No. 1 ranked penalty kill and is excellent on faceoffs. That said, other teams would be able to offer him more money given the Bruins' cap crunch.
Foligno and Hathaway had their moments this past season, but the Bruins would be better served giving their roles and ice time to younger, faster and more skilled players.
Clifton was a solid bargain at a $1 million cap hit each of the last three seasons. Bringing him back at the right price would be fine, but the B's also have Jakub Zboril signed for just $1.137 million next season. Zboril could take Clifton's minutes and cost the Bruins less in terms of cap space.
4) Get Jeremy Swayman re-signed soon
As we mentioned above, the three-year, $12 million contract Jake Oettinger signed with the Stars last fall is a good template for the Bruins and Swayman to work around. But what if Swayman wants a longer term deal? Eating up UFA years can get expensive. That said, the Bruins must retain Swayman at all costs.
He's just 24 years old, which means he could be the Bruins' No. 1 goalie for over a decade. His age also fits the timeline of the franchise's other top young stars, including Pastrnak (26) and Charlie McAvoy (25).
Goalies who impress in their first couple seasons typically sign three-year deals as RFAs. Here are some recent examples:
A four-year deal worth between $4-5 million per season would be great for both sides. It would keep Swayman in Boston for the early half of his prime and still give him the opportunity to cash in with a much larger extension before turning 30.
Swayman finished top four in save percentage (.920) and GAA (2.27), while ranking No. 2 in high-danger save percentage (.862) among goalies with 25-plus appearances last season. He has the potential to be a top 10 goalie as a full-time starter.
5) Identify prospects who can make NHL impact next season
The Bruins have talked in the past about integrating more young players into the lineup, but they've usually opted to sign veterans instead. This summer they might not have a choice given their limited cap space.
Young, cost-controlled players on entry-level contracts will be vital to the team's roster construction over the next couple years. They need some of their prospects to make an impact at a low salary cap hit. With so many bottom-six forwards able to test free agency in the offseason, there could be several open jobs for prospects to compete for during training camp.
"We have to grow and foster some younger players that will play some roles," Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said earlier this month. "So, we feel good about, you know, if you look at guys who can go and play a top-six role right now, I think we have to fill the bottom part of our roster."
Which prospects could fill out the bottom part of Sweeney's roster?
John Beecher was a 2019 first-round pick of the Bruins. He hasn't developed as expected offensively, but he's become a solid defensive forward who can kill penalties and consistently win faceoffs. Beecher wouldn't be a bad Nosek replacement if the fourth-line center leaves in free agency. Georgii Merkulov would add speed and offensive skill to the third or fourth lines. He led the P-Bruins with 24 goals and 55 points in his first full AHL season. He has some work to do defensively, but the Bruins could use his goal-scoring talent and playmaking ability. Fabian Lysell had a lackluster second half of the 2022-23 AHL campaign, but the 2021 first-round pick has exciting speed and offensive skill. It wouldn't be shocking if he got a look in the NHL at some point next season.
If the Bruins trade a defenseman like Matt Grzelcyk or Derek Forbort to create cap space, top prospect Mason Lohrei could potentially get a look at the NHL level. Lohrei's development has been fantastic. He has great size (6-foot-4, 203 pounds), a high hockey IQ and an impressive two-way skill set. Getting some AHL experience would serve him well, but he's probably not too far away from being ready to take on NHL competition.